Aira, a brownie servant girl, learns that her father is in danger.
|As moonlight crept through the castle window, Aira hoped it would soon be safe to enter the human world. Her mouse-like whiskers twitched as she sensed the air, her pointed ears pricked to catch sounds of humans stirring. Too bad that it was Midsummer’s Eve and the peasants cutting the hay would be late returning home to their beds.
Metal clanked as farm workers stowed away their tools, bidding their neighbours goodnight as they left the fields and thickets to become the haunts of faerie troops celebrating the solstice. Aira pictured the scene as the humans headed to their village, with the castle of Tullochgorm frowning down on them from arrow slit eyes. Some of the loopholes must be still lit, casting silver slivers of light across the water of the loch, for she heard some servants stirring.
A poor drudge, freshly sent from one of the crofts to work at the castle, passed by Aira as she peeped from a hole in the wainscotting where a knot of wood had come away. Aira pitied the girl with her eyes reddened with weariness after tidying away the remains of the banquet. She wished the maid had left some of the work for her and her fellow brownies to finish. As House Elves, it was the duty of brownies to help humans in their homes.
Aira retreated a step as an elderly widow shuffled along with a basket of laundry. A page boy hurried by, calling to the woman that he was searching for the missing gauntlet that his master needed for the morrow’s hunt. Aira hoped he would soon find it and retire to bed, leaving the castle rooms deserted. She was impatient for it to become safe to breakfast on the offering of fresh cream and lightly baked bread placed at the foot of a flight of stairs as a customary token of goodwill to the brownies that worked doing chores in the castle by night.
‘Is it safe to step outside?’ Aira’s stepmother, Gretchen, asked.
Aira glanced back at her stepmother with her familiar thin nose and lips countered by large, warm brown eyes and a complexion mottled with freckles.
Biting her lip, Aira returned her attention to the corridor before her. She wished this task hadn’t fallen to her but, on the verge of becoming a young woman, she was of an age when she needed to learn to discern if it was safe to enter the castle unnoticed by humans. Though her mouth watered at the wholesome aroma from the food they left out, she knew that most humans would not think twice about trapping a brownie as a curiosity. Humans had once persecuted faeries nearly to extinction. Aira shuddered to think what might have happened had the faeries not used their remaining magic to create a parallel world touching the human lands, yet hidden from them except for a few special spots like the elf knot in Tullochgorm Castle.
Wishing that the responsibility of checking for danger had not been handed to her, she peered further along the corridor, pushing back a stray wisp of golden hair that had slipped out of her cap.
The maid, page boy and washerwoman had disappeared from view, but had enough time passed to make it likely that they were safely in bed? Adding to her uncertainty was the pressure that the safety of her clan rested on her response. She was acutely aware of the eyes of a score of other brownies upon her.
Aira tilted her head imploringly towards her father, Airen. ‘I’m not sure this time. What do you think?’
‘Yes, all should be well. The humans have been long asleep, lass,’ Airen said.
Airen jumped out of the elf knot, a quick grace in his movements. He turned back to offer Aira his hand to help her step out into the human world.
The air shimmered as Aira left the protection of the faerie world, entering the dangerous territory of the castle.
Airen’s pack of metalwork clanked on his shoulders as he turned to bid Aira farewell. ‘I’ll be on my way. I can’t believe you’re 424 years old tomorrow, my dearie. Almost too old to call a bairn now. It’s a great shame that arrogant elf, King Midhir, picked this day for holding the fey market, but I must earn our tithe money from selling my weapons tonight, and you and Gretchen must earn our bread serving the humans in the castle. I promise I’ll hurry back as soon as I may to wish you many happy returns.’
‘Once you’re back, can we go and pick some of the pretty flowers in the hedgerows? The meadows look so jolly in summer,’ Aira said.
Airen shook his head. ‘You never ask for much by way of birthday gifts, lass.’
Airen assumed his true height; a little under three feet, to better help him scurry down the stairs.
Putting her hand against the wall to steady herself after the giddiness that came with altering height, Aira watched the other brownies grow to their full heights likewise. The dizziness was worth it, as it was easier to do chores in the castle at her full height. Although in the faerie world Aira was perfectly sized, in the world of humans she felt tiny. Even standing at her full height of two foot six, she was dwarfed by the castle hunting hounds.
The brownies went to the Great Hall. Aira relished the scent of fragrant lady’s bedstraw and meadowsweet sprigs that they strewed amongst the rushes on the floor to freshen the air. She tiptoed to avoid awakening the servants who slumbered there. Then the coppers needed polishing in the kitchen.
Gretchen handed Aira a fresh rag to buff up the copper kettle that she was polishing. ‘The cook’s always astounded how well these keep their shine. I’m pleased he suspects that it’s due to the secret diligence of us brownies and knows the tales about leaving food out to repay us for our work.’
Maggie Moloch, one of the older brownies, shuffled over. She was so stooped that her parsnip shaped chin almost touched the floor as she gave Aira fresh orders. ‘It was laundry day for the humans yesterday. There will be plenty of linen needing folding and putting away.’
Aira obediently set aside the polished kettle and followed Maggie. She was keen to perfect the technique of folding the heavy tablecloths and sheets, which she struggled with.
‘I’ll help gladly,’ Aira said. ‘I promise I’ll try to fold the cloths neatly and not trip over them again.’
Seizing a corner of one of the cloths, Aira waited for Gretchen to grasp the another, whilst Maggie picked up the last two. Maggie lifted her edges in a nimble motion while Gretchen hummed. Folding with Maggie and Gretchen was more like dancing than work.
Aira fetched the next tablecloth from the top of the pile. As she folded it under her arm, a hand burst from the laundry basket, grabbing her wrist. Aira screamed.
Gretchen darted to her aid, holding a peg bag poised to strike Aira’s attacker. She froze. Aira blinked, her hammering heart slowing as puzzlement overcame her. The stowaway looked from Aira, beyond Gretchen to Maggie. Amazing! The unfamiliar brownie’s features mirrored those of Maggie, except that this brownie looked worn to a thread. Her work-roughened fingers slid from Aira’s wrist, reaching out for Maggie.
With an effort, Aira got her breathing under control, hoping that the humans slumbering in the rooms above would not have overheard her yell of surprise. If they did then the brownies would shrink down to the size of mice and scurry into the corners of the room to avoid the notice of the humans. ’Who are you? How did you get in the washing basket?’
Maggie flung her arms around the stranger. ‘It’s all right, Aira. This is my sister, Meg.’
Meg gave Maggie and ecstatic squeeze. ‘Maggie, it’s so good to see you! All these years since Krysila destroyed Velmoran I had no idea you survived.’
‘Sorry Meg, I think we both scared each other.’ Aira offered Meg her hand and helped her out of the laundry basket. Meg was so weak that her knees almost gave way as she stepped out.
‘Deary me, whatever’s happened?’ Gretchen asked.
‘Here, have some of the bread and cream the humans left for us. You look famished,’ Aira said. Concerned by the wan appearance of the brownie woman, Aira pushed aside thoughts of how she had been looking forward to her portion of cream and bread and handed Meg her own meal.
‘I can’t believe that others of our clan survived when the kraken attacked Velmoran,’ Meg said.
Seeing Meg looking so twitchy awoke Aira’s sorrow over the scattered and broken existence that the brownies lived since their coastal kingdom, Velmoran, was lost. She wished they were still living there, far from their struggles in the human world.
‘It’s lovely to know that more brownies escaped the kraken’s attack,’ Aira said. ‘I hate Krysila for destroying Velmoran. All for what? She may have seen the fruit of the Tree of Life as a great treasure, but the immortality it grants is nothing compared to living a peaceful life in freedom.’
Meg nodded. ‘Perhaps those times will come again? King Gruagach has been leading us to find a new home where we can be free of our endless years of servitude under the ungrateful humans.’
‘Have King Gruagach’s sons survived?’ Aira stepped closer. ‘What of Boroden?’ She both wished and feared to hear Meg’s reply.
Meg hesitated. ‘He lives.’
In spite of Meg’s reserved tone, Aira clapped her hands in delight. Each day she prayed that Boroden had survived. Her childhood memories of playing with her friend, Prince Boroden, in the gardens about the palace of Velmoran, comforted her at even the darkest times.
Telling herself to control her elation, Aira straightened up and faced Meg. ‘Could you take me to him?’
Meg tightened her lips with a sorrowful expression. ‘I don’t think so. Boroden is in grave danger. Hobyahs have been searching for us since we fled Velmoran. They’re under Krysila’s orders. A scout spotted them on our trail the same day that a sídhe king found our camp. King Midhir ordered us to move on or else become his slaves.’
Aira and Gretchen cast each other knowing looks. Aira saw that Gretchen shared her rueful recollection that they had the misfortune to know Midhir themselves.
‘I’m sorry you ran into him, Meg. How did you manage to get away and come to find us?’ Aira asked.
Meg laid aside her empty plate. ‘I overheard a sídhe knight suggest to King Midhir that Gruagach was invited into Midhir’s lands by the brownies that work in Tullochgorm Castle.’ She turned to her sister. ‘I couldn’t believe it when I overheard the knight say that you were the village matriarch, Maggie. I almost got sprung upon by the hobyahs on my way here and had to travel by day when humans were about. I used my last drops of precious glamour ointment to make myself invisible to them. In desperation, I hid in a basket of clean linen that a maid was carrying into the castle. It’s not safe for you here - Midhir is in such a rage with the brownies.’
Gretchen’s face paled. ‘Hobyahs? This isn’t good. My husband’s out there heading to the market.’
Gretchen pressed her hand to her forehead as if she was going to faint. Aira put her arm around her and helped her to sit.
Maggie turned to her sister, her arms clasped fretfully. ‘We can’t leave our village. Where else would we go? Meg, I’m sure that Midhir wouldn’t want to lose the tithe payments we give him. Midhir is hungry for riches and demands payment in gold. Fortunately, we pay him easily, for the metalwork sold by Aira’s father is worth its weight in gold. His fine work has won him renown amongst the faerie kingdoms of these parts. Airen should come back safe and sound, and laden with riches after selling his wares at the market tonight.’
Aira turned to Meg, keen to introduce her father. ‘Father prefers to be a swordsmith, though he’s always busy making nails, letter openers and other useful implements for humans. It’s fortunate he’s able to work metal, since iron burns most faeries. Looking at the amount of iron the humans use in their homes, it’s hardly to be wondered that years of living alongside humans has built up the tolerance of brownies to iron.’
Meg’s grip on her arm made Aira wince. ‘Your father’s gone to the market at Midhir’s palace?’
‘Yes.’ Aira’s voice trembled as she saw the concern etched in Meg’s face. ‘You think he’s in danger there?’
Meg nodded. ‘If Midhir even allows the market to go ahead what with the trouble brewing between our clan and the hobyahs.’
‘Then he’ll not return with any gold? We’ll be ruined.’ Maggie crumpled back against the laundry basket, her aghast expression making Aira’s stomach knot.
‘I need to warn him,’ Aira said, wringing her hands. Although the thought of heading into peril appalled her, she would anything to stop her father getting hurt.
Meg cast Aira a pleading glance. ‘Aira, please. It’s too dangerous to go to Midhir’s lands. I didn’t come all this way to warn you only for you to get killed. You’re so young. I’m sure your father wouldn’t want anything to happen to you.’
Aira began to protest but Maggie stared her down, her hands on her hips. ‘Aira, no. As matriarch of our village, I forbid you or any others to go. If we give Midhir any reason to suspect we’re involved with King Gruagach, then it’ll be the worse for us. I’m sorry but your father will have to fend for himself.’
Aira quaked, fighting back tears. Although she was never one to get into an argument, she felt a sudden urge to defy Maggie and tear out of the castle to the faerie portal that led to Midhir’s realm.
‘Come and help me restock the medicine chest of the castle apothecary. He’s run out of woundwort,’ Gretchen said.
Aira’s heart leapt at the way that Gretchen held eye contact as if she tried to communicate something beyond what she had said. Clumps of woundwort grew near the portal to the faerie market. Did Gretchen mean to use collecting the herb as an excuse for them to go there and search for Airen?
Once they were out of earshot of the other brownies in the pungently herbal smelling cupboard of the apothecary, Gretchen turned to Aira. ‘Maggie’s right that going into Midhir’s lands is risky, but I don’t feel easy about your father. If he manages to make it back to the portal, there will be more trouble. It’s almost dawn, and he’s forgotten to take any glamour with him. There’s a chance the humans might capture him and do all manner of evil things.’
‘The least we can do is take him some glamour to give him the protection of invisibility if a human does appear. We’ll take some ourselves, so they shan’t spot us,’ Aira said.
Aira motioned Gretchen to give her the valuable vial of glamour. She took the glamour gingerly, well knowing how precious its ingredients were: four-leaf clovers, buds of hollyhock, marigold flowers, wild thyme from a fairy knoll, buds of young hazel and grass from under a fairy throne.
Gretchen sighed. ‘What about Maggie forbidding us to go? I’ll head off home, and if Maggie calls, then I’ll say that you’re feeling too upset to see her. Aira, promise me that you’ll wait for him by the portal and not leave the human world.’
Aira had thought of going to the market to find Airen, but Gretchen’s desperate plea made her pause and remember that she had other loved ones to think of besides her father. ‘I promise. I know the meadows near the castle well, and I’m quick on my feet.’
Gretchen hugged her. ‘I’m proud of you, lass. Now go quick before the humans stir. Your father should be returning now, whether Midhir held the market or no.’
Slipping out of the castle, Aira faltered as she saw dawn light beginning to burnish the waters of the loch. Soon farm workers would be about, making the most of the long hours of high summer. Go on in this hostile world she must. At least she had taken some glamour.
Finding the entrance to the sídhe kingdom deserted, Aira lingered. She collected some regal maroon flower spikes of woundwort and stowed them in the basket that she had taken to give herself the excuse of heading out to pick herbs if Maggie or another of the brownies spotted her. The pungent odour of the snapped stems of the woundwort filled the air. Their soft, bristly leaves brushed Aira’s arms, for her sleeves were still rolled up from doing her chores.
Dewdrops bejewelled the grass, sparkling with rainbows. The sun peered eagerly above the castle. Soon the grass began to steam in the heat of the sun. Aira kept close to the trees, avoiding the clumsy hoofs of cows and the notice of a yawning dairymaid. There was no sign of Airen. As Aira searched the nearby countryside, anguish overwhelmed her. She shivered, skittering about the gateway to Midhir’s lands like a cornered deer. Soon it would be too dangerous for Airen to return to the human world that day.